Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) open up communications channels between minds and machines and have already achieved remarkable things, says Andrew Palmer, The Economist’s business affairs editor and author of a Technology Quarterly report on brains and machines. Published in the January 7th edition of the The Economist and online at www.economist.com the report assesses the latest research into BCIs and measures the gap between today’s reality and the ambitions of the neurotechnology visionaries.
BCI technology has already been employed in the form of implants in the brains of paralysed people, helping them to control prosthetic arms, move cursors and even reanimate their own limbs. Now the pace of research into BCIs and the scale of its ambition is increasing. America’s armed forces are keen to build better implants. And Silicon Valley is starting to focus on these technologies. Facebook is working on thought-to-text typing. Kernel, founded by entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, has $100m to spend on neurotechnology. Elon Musk has formed a firm called Neuralink, hoping to upgrade human intelligence in order to survive the advent of artificial intelligence.
These entrepreneurs envisage a world in which people can communicate telepathically, with each other and with machines, or do things that are not possible at present, such as hearing at very high frequencies. But The Economist’s report notes that three formidable barriers stand in the way:
Non-invasive ways of reading the brain are unable to provide high-resolution signals
Current invasive implants carry risks of infection because wires go through the scalp
Existing implants interact with only a small number of neurons
Scientists still do not know exactly how the brain works
Experiments on humans are hard to pull off, for regulatory and other reasons
It takes time, money and expertise to get medical devices approved
Commercial applications will take off only if they are obviously useful
Unless in urgent need of treatment, consumers will resist the idea of implants
The Economist’s report looks at efforts now under way to read and stimulate brain activity, both invasively and non-invasively, and considers the practical and ethical difficulties involved in moving neurotechnology from the lab into clinical and consumer applications. Solving these problems will take a great deal of time and effort. Even so, a big leap forward for brain-computer interfaces, argues Andrew Palmer, is looking increasingly likely.